Edmonton civic leaders lay out blueprint for a more equitable, inclusive post-pandemic city

The public message was clear: maintain six feet apart. As people began to physically distance themselves to prevent the spread of COVID-19, cities and rural areas unfortunately became ghost towns. Public space, green space, and city facilities, vacant. Sidewalks and streets, naked. Businesses and restaurants, scant. Where did all the people go?

The pandemic saw homes bursting with varied household compositions. Some households, more equipped than others to live, learn, and isolate together. Some households, more connected to nearby groceries and services. Some households, more privileged than others to access technology, arts, and culture. And some households, not adequate at all — with temporary facilities using mats to accommodate individuals experiencing homelessness; stairwells and units crowded with children attempting to do their schoolwork; and dwellings in disenfranchised neighbourhoods lacking access to fresh sustenance.

The pandemic has shown us that we often do not know what we want or need until we lose it: our urban spaces that connect us. What it has also shown us is that there is a tremendous gap between those with wealth and privilege and those without it.

When our city’s spaces and places reopen and people begin to resuscitate life on our urban streets and sidewalks, what lasting lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic will be imparted on our cities? Will the human psyche shift in favour of visions of city regeneration held by city builders and planners alike? A conversation unfolded between women and racialized planners and engineers from across the country to answer this question. A number of themes were explored, with a keen interest in the intersection of wealth, equity, and privilege during the pandemic, and its implications for cities.

Exacerbating Urban Inequities

This pandemic has revealed the racial and social equity shortcomings in our cities; yet whether we were able to address these divides has gone largely unchecked. Anxieties and fears about virus transmission quickly shifted to racial stigma and negative perceptions of ethnic enclaves like our urban Chinatowns. Rural and Indigenous communities on the fringes struggled with a lack of fibre optics to support the switch to a virtual world — making digital communication and connection even more difficult. We heard stories of families who lacked multiple devices for their children to learn and participate in school activities. Families driving their kids and parking close to schools because this was the only place where the internet was stable enough for virtual learning. Seniors living in facilities outside of their downtowns were even more socially isolated, with groceries, businesses, and healthcare out-of-reach.

As health authorities cautioned residents to physically distance and isolate at home, many found themselves unable to do just that. Not everyone has a home or a safe place to reside. Those living in precarious housing conditions were often placed in vulnerable positions — with their living spaces on full virtual display. Already overcrowded homeless shelters quickly became more taxed, with many of their participants unable to safely space themselves.

While those who have a car could easily access grocery stores and purchase enough supplies to last them for a few weeks, limiting their exposure to COVID-19, individuals living in lower-income situations were more likely to make smaller purchases, compelled to make more frequent visits to the grocery store. In rural communities, access to fresh produce is scarce, or more expensive.

Jobs lost as a result of COVID-19 were uneven. Recent studies in the United States have shown that those in the lowest income brackets were disproportionately affected by temporary layoffs and job losses. Those remaining — front line staff — became the unlikely heroes of this pandemic, with many celebrating how “essential” they were. Yet, their contributions before the pandemic were perceived negatively or as “lesser than”.

City builders from across the nation began to theorize and postulate about the future post-pandemic — considering these social and racial divides. What we have found missing in this discussion is explicit outreach with those voices who have been impacted by the pandemic first hand. Collaborating with non-profits, community organizations, and social agencies would be one way to identify a cross-section of individuals and families that could be interviewed to better understand their lived experiences.

Yet, we need to proceed with caution. The lived experiences of those dealing with the trauma of this pandemic have a lot of insight to share, but when can planners engage with these folks, at what point and time, while still being respectful? People are faced with the trauma today, and may not be able to share their perspectives or may be uncomfortable doing so. When do we start the healing journey when the trauma is being faced today?

Emerging Opportunities for Equity

The pandemic brought about a need to make decisions in a timeframe that did not necessarily allow for public participation or dialogue. The issues that emerged loudest at the onset were the need to support individuals and businesses financially through the recovery, and attention was diverted to developing programs and supports for various groups. These rolled out, week over week, across all levels of government, and provided safeguards to help ensure that the economy did not collapse. In Canada, the Canada Emergency Response benefit has been applauded for its quick distribution and rollout, despite concerns that there may have been some level of fraudulent applications. However other programs, such as property tax or business licence reductions, have not yet been fully studied to see if they were able to create a meaningful impact.

As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern famously noted, “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success. It is failure.” Yet when we dive into these programs, it is hard to see specific evidence that equity and reconciliation lenses were applied. Instead, a focus on safety and ‘traditional economic growth’ patterns seems to have overshadowed any consideration of equity outcomes. This is despite the fact that early on it was evident that women were being more negatively impacted by the pandemic than men. There was little support or attention given to workers who provide essential services, despite the fact that these positions are often held by those with lower incomes and who lack sick coverage and benefits.

One such response was the reduction of public transit services, as a result of reduced travel demand. It soon became evident that the impact of reduced service was disproportionately being felt by those in lower income brackets and (often hand in hand), key workers who often rely on public transportation to access jobs and day-to-day necessities. Revised responses did occur (e.g. strategically supplying transit service along critical routes to support access to certain employment nodes), these responses were only made after alternate voices and perspectives helped to amplify the issue, rather than having thought through the impact prior to making a decision.

The pandemic also highlighted the disparity of health impacts amongst various groups (albeit more significantly in the United States). However, many rural, remote and Indigenous communities have limited to no health care resources, and were incredibly vulnerable as the virus spread. To help curb the spread, many Indigenous communities closed their borders — exercising what little control they had to support their most vulnerable populations. Elders were isolated as access to transportation is extremely limited at the best of time and Nations and Settlements mobile Elder care package delivery fairly quickly.

As the shut down went on, it soon became clear that there were more than just COVID-19 and economic costs to consider. Further health challenges emerged, ones which will continue to play out for years to come. Delayed surgeries mean that there is a backlog in all of our health care services, and there is a real mental health and addiction crisis occurring. Opioid deaths rose as did alcohol and drug use. Domestic violence victims had less opportunity to seek refuge and we do not know what delayed impacts the shut down will have on our physiological and societal health. These tensions between various health concerns and the economic impacts have made people question what a ‘right’ response is, and can it ever be equitable?

As we look to recover, we need to ensure that speed does not preclude the application of equity and reconciliation lenses. We have the opportunity to reshape our ‘normal’ and to ensure that we are inclusive in our future programs and initiatives. However the financial bill of COVID-19 may threaten innovation and best practice, and steer policy and decision making towards the same old tried and true formulas, ones that systematically support some groups while oppressing others.

Already we are beginning to see investments made in traditional infrastructure and no additional spending on childcare or schools. While small businesses were given temporary relief, we do not know if there is a longer-term plan to also require sick days for workers or increased pay for jobs now inherently more risky than at the beginning of the year. The expert panels assembled to tackle the crises continue to reflect the economies of past years, and are not representative of our whole society. A concerted effort to listen to new voices, to diverse groups, and to take on new ideas and investment in our youth is required if we are to emerge a stronger, more inclusive society.

In addition to this, as programs from various levels of government continue to be launched and administered, a Gender Based Analysis + (GBA+), diversity, and inclusion lens must be carefully considered. What kinds of data need to be collected to understand how COVID-19 has impacted a diverse range of people? How will we measure if our programs have meaningfully supported those from equity-seeking groups?

Governing Differently

Planning beyond the pandemic will take courage. There may be an urge to go back to basics as a way to shore up economic losses and reduce taxes for residents. However that would mean ignoring what we have learned from the pandemic — we can create better, think bigger and be more inclusive when we move beyond the basics. The pandemic showed that we can pivot and distribute our resources differently.

During the pandemic we saw people rising up once again against systemic racism in our society. We should not ignore nor forget that the professions of planning and engineering need to turn an inward eye towards systemic racist practices in our fields. We should note the attention that is being paid to inequalities facing racialized people in our cities and rural communities and identify the planning and engineering design elements, historic and recent, that have perpetuated inequities. This will mean questioning, seeking out and identifying embedded privilege in our planning and engineering practices – an uncomfortable exercise but this is needed. For decades we have assumed a slow shift will lead the way to greater equity. However when there is inequitable access in our cities and rural communities, when individuals are treated differently by our government, judicial and policing systems — we cannot think that a slow shift is acceptable or necessary to accommodate the dominant culture.

Using data is one important way that we can shine a light on inequities in our cities and how they may have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Tools like CityWatch and CityShareCanada, developed by the Canadian Urban Institute, track real time response measures being used by municipalities, including crowdsourced stories about how city builders and residents are responding to the pandemic. Examining our planning tools is also important to understand how they can be used to bring about greater equity. The most impactful interventions (e.g. zoning, policy, urban design) could be identified and prioritized, then tagged with an equity lens review by both those responsible for managing them but also in collaboration with non-profit organizations and racialized communities. When soliciting feedback/input, it will be increasingly important for planners to ensure that surveys and other mechanisms seek to best represent underrepresented and minority groups, with delivery methods that are diverse and inclusionary.

One major lesson that we learned from this pandemic is how quickly governments, institutions, and the private sector are able to respond. Within weeks society organized to launch major initiatives including national financial assistance programs, online learning ranging from elementary to post secondary, repurposing hundreds of kilometers of road rights of way for walking, cycling, and place making, and implementing ‘hero pay’ and higher wages for front line workers. Any one of these initiatives on its own would have been a major feat under regular circumstances but we have shown we can accomplish amazing things even under great strain. These major changes lead us to wonder what impacts there might be to planning our cities. As employers consider offering continued flexibility for staff to work at home, planners and engineers are asking what lasting impacts that could have on travel patterns, public and open spaces, commercial real estate demand, and land use planning.

The pandemic also highlighted income level differences — those who can and cannot work from home and those whose jobs are tied to unstable employment. The notion of universal basic income should be examined as one way to help stabilize the economy and reduce stress on social systems that will inevitably be taxed by higher unemployment and reduced household income.

Recording this event in time will be important including being deliberate about who we include to ensure all voices are captured. We know that one voice recording history will be limited and we should look to honour a variety of perspectives. Likewise it will be important for governments to record their actions, responses, and consultations on the new frameworks, decisions and process changes. Engaging in an impartial audit process to identify gaps in decisions and processes in response to the crisis. This will be helpful on two fronts, firstly to help inform future decision making but also to ensure that solutions that were devised in haste to respond to the crisis are not made permanent without first confirming that they offer benefits to the full spectrum of society.

Shifting our Thinking

On Twitter, BBC host Damian Barr noted, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just one oar.” We all come from different backgrounds and have different journeys to take, but the idea of equity, diversity, and inclusion is that no matter our situation at the time, we should have equitable access to work towards the same result — that we are all safe, healthy and have access to basic human rights such as food, water, clothing and shelter. When it comes to treatment, behaviours, actions, and words of others, that is of course harder to control and can be seen in stereotypes, unconscious bias, prejudice, and racism of different demographic groups.

To make large organizational change or systematic change, it either takes incredibly influential people or a crisis to be open to doing a step change or a left turn. COVID-19 provides that opportunity to shift policies and frameworks to more inclusive and equitable ones.

Living in a capitalist society means our policies and decisions are advanced through stakeholder groups who control or dominate capital dollars and spending. As such, the policies are often written from that perspective and are not always inclusive of community demographics, who often lack a seat at the table. We need to ensure consultation is not just lip service or a checkmark on a legislative or regulatory checklist, but rather there is space created to hear different voices and a willingness to truly take into account different perspectives. There needs to be the right time, space, and fit of people to do that. Planners, engineers, and other professionals who facilitate consultation activities need to have the right emotional intelligence, demeanour, diplomacy, and compassion. The idea of policy is not to be stagnant, but to be live documents, which can shift and change and be reviewed at any time. The idea of continual improvement needs to be built into policy creation and project planning.

In thinking through the issues identified as a result of COVID-19 and in identifying the ways in which city building will need to adapt and respond to crisis and equity concerns, a marked necessity and centering of introspection, empathy, flexibility, and creativity is illuminated. We must continually remind ourselves in our professions to place these lenses on the work we do as we evolve through the pandemic — otherwise we are no better. While it may seem that we are alone, as we isolate and physically distance, we are in fact together in our hope and optimism that this challenging work can be advanced.

Glinis Buffalo is a Planning Lead with AECOM and is a member of Samson Cree Nation, Maskwacis, and she has extensive experience in a wide range of community planning and policy initiatives that includes First Nation community development plans, provincial regional plans, area structure plans, municipal development plans, strategic planning and municipal land use applications.

Howaida Hassan (PEng) is a General Supervisor of Urban Growth with the City of Edmonton. Most recently she was the General Supervisor of Transportation for the City Plan – a plan that identifies the choices that need to be made to be a healthy, urban and climate resilient city of two million.

Lyla Peter (MCP, BA, MBA) is the Director of Development and Zoning Services at the City of Edmonton. She is fascinated by how people, geographies, politics and culture (and now pandemics) shape our communities, which has led her to work in small and big cities across three countries (Canada, United States, UK).

Jason Syvixay (MCP, BSc, BA) is an urban planner currently completing his PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead and support the implementation of its Infill Roadmap.

Jessica Vandenberghe (PEng, MSc) is an Industrial Professor – Indigenous Engineering and Assistant Dean, Outreach, Faculty of Engineering, University of Alberta. She has worked in the oilsands, mining, regulatory, infrastructure and consulting industries.